March 10, 2024 Sermon

The Rev. Joseph Farnes

All Saints, Boise

Lent 4B

March 10, 2024

          Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

            This links the Gospel reading to the Old Testament reading from this morning. The bronze serpent was a sign of healing. It was a sign of death and destruction that instead became the power of life for the Israelites. The Israelites would be bitten by a serpent, and then they would look on the bronze serpent and find healing. And it wasn’t just in Israelite culture that we find the serpent as a medical symbol – the staff of Asclepius, the single snake wrapped around a staff, has been a symbol of healing and medicine for millennia. (This is different from the caduceus, the one with two serpents and wings – that’s actually the symbol for business and commerce, not medicine)

That’s an important thing to recall – sometimes we see the cross made into “just” a symbol, a symbol for this or that social or political movement. The cross, for us, *is* an expression of God’s healing, an expression of God’s power over death, an instrument of everlasting life. We look on the cross, and we should plant ourselves firmly right in front of Christ – a Christ who was born for all, who lived for all, who died for all, who rose triumphant for all.

            We would do well to remember that the bronze serpent is later destroyed because it had become an idol. Either the cross is the loving life of Jesus Christ poured out for all, or it is no longer the true cross.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.    

            John’s Gospel is a book of powerful imagery, contradictions, contrasts. It is not a neat and tidy book – none of the Gospels are, but the Gospel of John is less a story told like the other Gospels; John’s Gospel is more a poem that evokes and hints.

            God loved the world – that is the starting point of our theology. God so loves the world. God so loves the world that God sends the Word, the Logos, God’s own self into the world. The Trinity is woven through in John’s Gospel.

            “So that everyone who believes in him” – how often this beautiful phrase is stripped of meaning by dogma. In John’s Gospel, who believes and who does not? It is not so clear-cut as some may want it to be. Nicodemus, the person that Jesus is talking to in this Gospel passage, seems not to believe. He comes to Jesus in the dark of night because he doesn’t want to be seen talking to Jesus in the daylight. He seems not to believe. The very next chapter, Jesus will talk to the Samaritan woman by the well in the bright light of the noonday, and she believes, and brings her whole town to believe. The contrast is clear! Nicodemus, a wise Jewish man, does not understand Jesus, his fellow Jew. But the Samaritan woman, she understands Jesus. She believes. But John does not say this is the end of the story. Nicodemus speaks in defense of Jesus, and he helps anoint and bury Jesus. He seems to believe in his own way. There is room in the story for everyone.

            Belief is not a black-or-white, yes-or-no way of thinking. Belief is not just how we feel in our heart. Belief is more – it is a way of life, an imperfect way of living that puts its trust in Jesus.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

            Some Christians, sadly, act as if God really wants to condemn the world, that God’s waiting in the wings with a lawbook to catch us on a technicality. What kind of image of God is that!

            God is not here to pass judgment – which is what the word “condemn” here means in Greek – but God sent God’s own self to save us. Salvation means healing, safety, restoring to life. Christ comes to us not to sit as judge but as a nurse, to bandage wounds, to take care of our brokenness, to comfort us in our pain. God has sent Jesus into the world to heal with his presence, to heal us and encourage us with his cross, and to bring us to the fullness of life and health. Imagine if we added an icon of “Jesus Christ the Nurse” to our collection of images!

 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

            Again, belief is not an act of thinking. Too much theology has been misled by that assumption. In years past, belief was all about thinking – having the right thoughts about Jesus and God, not being a heretic, saying the right thing to make sure you were “saved.” No.

            And belief is not an act of feeling, either. The pendulum of Christianity has swung between thinking and feeling through the centuries. Were you saved if you went to a revival and tearfully confessed all your sins and went up to the altar to be “saved”? What happened when that feeling faded? Belief is more than feeling, either.

            And thus not believing is more than thinking or feeling, either. People don’t believe in Jesus for a multitude of reasons – and so often it’s because we Christians have set a bad example of Christ.

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

            “And this is the judgment.” Do you want to know what the word “judgment” here is in Greek? It’s Krisis. This is the crisis – that light has come into the world, and it exposes everything. This is the judgment – that we know what is good and right, and we don’t do it. This is our condemnation – that we could love and nurse and care for the wounded and hurting, care for one another, care for the stranger, and we let the world go on the way it is.

            The light has come into the world and shown us what is good and right, and it shows us what we keep preferring and doing.

            But, again, I remind you: Christ has not come into the world to condemn it, judge it, incarcerate it or execute it. Jesus has come into the world to heal it with his life everlasting. And he calls you and me to do our best to heal, too. To be healed inside – to join in healing others – to join in healing a whole world.

            We do not lift up the cross as a sign of triumph and power. We lift up the cross like a first aid tent, as a field hospital in a refugee camp. We lift up the cross as a sign of healing and hope for all the world. This is the sign that we can look upon and be healed, and this is the sign under which we bring healing to others, no matter who they are. Amen.